Amanda Lipitz explains that the first feature film she has directed and produced — Step: A Real Life Story — is not about Judaism, but it is about Jewish values.
The documentary, opening Aug. 11 in Metro Detroit, showcases an all-girls high school in Baltimore where a step dance team works together to win a championship and transfers energy and enthusiasm from the activity into academic achievements.
The ultimate goal for all team members is acceptance into college.
“The film is entertaining with a really deep and powerful message,” says Lipitz, 37, named by Jewish Women International as one of “10 Women to Watch” in 2008.
“It inspires people to get up and make changes by helping and mentoring, and I hope young people take away [the idea of] having a plan, a blueprint, and sticking to that plan to achieve their dreams.
“Everything in the film would have happened whether I was there with a camera or not. I learned that nothing is impossible when you come together with a group of powerful women.”
The film showcases the Lethal Ladies of the BLSYW (Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women) Step Team and the staff members advising and encouraging them. It takes place in their senior year.
Besides seeing the team performing high-energy step dancing, audiences will get to know individual members and their hurdles, often from family or financial limitations.
Stepping is a tradition emphasizing rhythmic and percussive foot movements with handclaps, call-and-response motions, songs, chants and propulsive musical rhythms combined to become a corporeal form of storytelling. Shaped by African-American history, it added elements of acrobatics, tap dance, hip-hop and stunts.
“I’m a pretty positive person inspired and fueled by music and musicals,” says Lipitz, who thought of being a performer before pursuing creative experiences behind the scenes. “I also have a lot of empathy. My grandmother had a saying, which is ‘one heart fills another,’ and I certainly try to live by that.
“The girls have become a part of my life and like family to me. I can’t imagine my life without them. I’ve been talking to them all the time, and I’ve been with them all the time because of a press tour. All 20 of us were at a festival in New Orleans, and we’ve all planned on going to New York and Los Angeles together.”
Before taking on this project, Lipitz had been making short films about first-generation students going to college and girls’ education. Her experience with a Jewish theme was as producer of Modern Orthodox, staged with Molly Ringwald and Jason Biggs.
As a youngster raised in Baltimore, where she had her bat mitzvah, Lipitz took dance classes and singing lessons, planning on being an actor until attending the New York University Tisch School of the Arts. She realized that the life of an actor wasn’t for her and found herself drawn to the creative process.
“When I graduated, I started working for a Broadway producer, and my first show was Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” she recalls. “I was 24.”
Her other producing credits include Legally Blonde: The Musical, The Performers and A View From the Bridge, a Tony Award-winning production. She is represented on Broadway this season by the Tony Award winner (Best Play) The Humans, which was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
Lipitz served as executive producer and creator of MTV’s series Legally Blonde: The Musical — The Search for Elle Woods. She also was associate producer of A Broadway Celebration for PBS as part of the White House music series.
Current projects include the original musical Brooklynite with music and lyrics by Peter Lerman.
“Anything I do has to have a social message to it and make a difference,” explains Lipitz, now a New Yorker who has made more than 30 documentaries for organizations such as Young Women’s Leadership Network, Citymeals on Wheels, College Bound Initiative, the Tory Burch Foundation, Barnard College, Turnaround for Children and the Gateway School.
“I have worked with the Young Women’s Leadership School in New York, where there is a 100-percent graduation rate,” Lipitz explains. “My mom is an activist in Baltimore, and I suggested that she look at these schools as a model for something that could be done there.
“She became a force behind the founding of the school in Baltimore and recruited her daughter to make films to promote the schools. I met these young women when they were in the sixth grade, and I fell in love with them. It wasn’t until many years later that I started to film Step.”
Lipitz, a trustee of New York University and Playwrights of New York, does not leave stepping behind when she goes home. Her own daughters, ages 3 and 7, are fully into it.
“My daughters are fantastic with these steps, much better than me,” she says. “They do this all the time, and it’s adorable. They watched the film to learn, but they’re not up to the standards of the Lethal Ladies just yet.”